Lola’s House, by M. Evelina Galang***-****

LolasHouseDuring World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced over 400,000 women into sexual slavery; though the Korean comfort women have been recognized for a long time, the survivors in the Philippines lived with the trauma and appalling social stigmatization for decades, unheard. Recently 173 of them, now very elderly, filed suit against the Japanese government. This collection includes interviews with 16 Filipina women whose lives were ruined by this atrocity. Thanks go to Net Galley and Northwestern University Press for the DRC, which I received early and free in exchange for this honest review. The collection is for sale now.

This is a rough read, hard to push through for the very thing that makes it valuable: it tells the women’s experiences in their own words. And they want to be heard. For decades, nobody, including their own families, has been willing to listen to them. After experiencing cruel, sadistic torture, they were greeted, upon the army’s departure, as social pariahs. Their countrymen let them know that nobody wants anything to do with a woman that’s been touched, penetrated, harmed in many unspeakable ways by the Japanese. They were called “Japanese leftovers.” Thus, their nightmare at the hands of the enemy was worsened by a subsequent nightmare at the hands of those they thought would console them.

And so as you can imagine, it’s not an enjoyable book. It isn’t intended to be.

Galang is also Filipina, and she weaves her own story in with that of her subjects. I would have preferred that she restrict herself to the topic; whereas including her own memoir may be cathartic, it also slows the pace. There are also snippets of untranslated Tagalog, and although this may resonate for those that are bilingual, context didn’t make the passages clear much of the time, and so I was left with the choice to either run to my desktop, type in the passages, translate them and return to the text, or just skip them and read on. It didn’t take me long to decide on the latter.

So as a general read for the lover of history, I can’t recommend this book, but for the researcher, it’s a gold mine. There is information here that you won’t find anywhere else. There are primary documents end to end here. I can imagine any number of thesis topics for which this work would be pivotal.

For the researcher, this is a four star read.

Point of No Return, by Martha Gellhorn*****

pointofnoreturn.jpgI want to give a shout-out to Open Road Media for the way they value the First Amendment. Every now and then I review something they’ve given me and rate it with one or two stars, and each time I wonder whether my outspoken criticism will get me knocked off their list of auto-approved readers. It’s never happened. It gives me a little extra joy, therefore, when I’m asked to read and review a book that is straight-up excellent, because everyone will know my five star rating is the real deal. Thanks, Open Road…and happy holidays to you, and to my faithful readers, too.

This exceptionally strong World War II story was a New York Times best seller when it was first published in 1948. Open Road Media has brought it back to us digitally, and I read it free in exchange for this honest review. I thank Open Road and Net Galley for inviting me to do so. Martha Gellhorn was at Dachau a week after its liberation, and her experience frames part of the narrative, the fictional tale of Jacob Levy, US soldier in Europe. This excellent war story is available to the public Tuesday, December 20, 2016.

It’s hard to miss the irony: Levy answers the call to duty, but his commanding officer is unhappy to discover that a member of his personal staff, his driver, is Jewish. He’s never had a Jew in his outfit before and doesn’t want one now; still, there’s nothing much he can do about it, so he forges grimly onward.

Levy, on the other hand, has heard stories and eventually sees situations in which nearly nobody gets out of a wildly dangerous situation alive except for his boss. He decides—as soldiers sometimes do—that his commander is lucky, and therefore the closer to that officer a man is, the likelier he is to share in that luck. He serves so faithfully and dependably that his commander eventually changes his mind and decides he likes Levy, without Levy ever learning that he’d been unwanted.

Our story starts when Levy joins the army in the United States, but quickly shifts to Europe. The most poignant scenes are those in Luxembourg, where the shell-shocked troops are astonished to find a semblance of normal life. There are houses that have people in them, food cooking, and glass in the windows. It is here that Jacob meets Kathe, and although there is no common language spoken between them, they fall in love anyway. For the rest of his part of this war, he will hold dear to the notion of a little home in the Smoky Mountains where he and Kathe can raise a family together.

I had sworn off Holocaust stories, telling myself that I already know about it; I no longer have students to whom to impart the information; from now on, I will only read what I want to read. But I appear to have landed on a list of reviewers that read this sort of book, and once I was invited, I decided I could read just one more. And I am so glad that I did.

The reader should know that the Holocaust is nothing more than rumor for 80 percent of the book. We aren’t looking at 300 pages of horror. There are battle scenes that are vivid and raw; Jacob participates in the Battle of the Bulge. People die; nobody can write about World War II accurately without imparting the fear, the grief, and the alienation that its participants and witnesses endured. But most of it is about Jacob as a person, what he thinks and feels. In other words, this is more the story of one soldier’s life than it is military history.

Technically this story isn’t historical fiction, because it wasn’t written 50 years or more after the events it describes. However, it will impact the reader as if it is, because the World War II was a very long time ago. So I recommend this book to those that love first rate historical fiction; that like to read about the European theater of World War II; or that like a good romance.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen****

missionjimmystewartIn Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Robert Matzen provides an engaging, compelling memoir that focuses primarily on Stewart’s time as an aviator during World War II. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Goodknight Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

The book begins with Stewart’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. His is a close knit family with a strong military tradition. An outstanding student, he is educated at Princeton and falls in love with theater one summer. He hits the road for Hollywood to fulfill his dream.

Because of the title, I am taken aback at the amount of celebrity gossip that is included in the first portion of the biography. Matzen wants us to know that Stewart used his skinny-awkward-young-man routine as a sort of foreplay to work his way between the sheets with one well known actress after another; he lists many of them. I could have lived without this part, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. If like me you are really only interested in the military aspect of it, skip the Hollywood part at the start and pick it back up when he enlists. Eventually this is what I did.

Once there, the story is fascinating. Stewart resolutely straight-armed studio efforts to keep him in the USA or use him to entertain troops, as some actors that are drafted chose to do. He angers a studio head who actually tells him, “You’ll never work in this town again”. He decides he is going to do his part like any other man, apart from the fact that he had always wanted to fly and now has the money for a private plane and flying lessons. Once he is actually in uniform, he is able to become the aviator he has dreamed of being as a youngster.

As Martzen unspools Stewart’s story, which had to be difficult to research given Stewart’s resolute refusal to discuss that period, I am instantly engaged. I had known at one time that the planes were not heated back then, but hadn’t fully appreciated the dangers and challenges posed by the cold alone once in the air. A man could suffocate if he didn’t regularly break the ice off of his mask. Men could and did lose body parts to frostbite.

The stories of the men that would eventually serve under him as he rises in rank, not due to strings pulled by authorities but as he has wished, by merit and leadership capability, are also both interesting and poignant. Reading the way the pilots name and decorate their planes, how individual aircraft with idiosyncrasies that make them handle differently so that the pilots strongly prefer to fly their own ships, is interesting, and  reading the personal details and in some cases, the deaths of these men is wrenching in some places, poignant in others.

When Stewart has completed his military service, he looks at least ten years older than he is. He’s seen a lot. If he returns to Hollywood, there’s no chance he will play the same roles he used to do. He stalwartly refuses to exploit his time in the service by making World War II films, which are enormously popular, and for a long time, his phone doesn’t ring. He’s sleeping at his parents’ house in his old childhood bedroom, wondering what will happen. But in time he hears from Frank Capra, who has an idea for a picture “based on a story titled ‘The Greatest Gift,’ about a man from a small town who wishes he had never been born. Jim was the only actor in Hollywood whom Capra considered for the role.”

Despite the sense of alienation he experiences with his return to the other-worldly, glitzy city after his gritty, intense experience in the war, Stewart is glad to be back, and he plays what will become an iconic role, that of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He credits Capra with saving his career, and is overjoyed to be back:

“He was engaged in something magical again, something to interest people in the art of living, rather than the art of dying.”

The book also discusses Stewart’s lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda, and his marriage. We get a brief overview of the peacetime lives of the surviving members of Stewart’s first crew.

If it were up to me, I would remove all of the somewhat jarring photos at the end of the book that show Stewart alongside one actress after another, and I’d replace them with photos and maybe diagrams of the planes we hear so much about. A map here and there wouldn’t hurt, since we follow his flight paths and it’s sometimes hard to visualize where these places are. I used Google, but would like to see these included as part of the published memoir, perhaps in the center, where they’re most relevant.

I recommend this biography to fans of Stewart’s, and I recommend most of this book to those with an interest in military history.  The book is available to the public today, October 24, 2016.

The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith*****

thegirlfromvMartin Cruz Smith is the best-selling author of Gorky Park and the Arkady Renko series. His new stand alone novel, The Girl from Venice, shows he hasn’t lost his magic, and it quickly became my favorite DRC once I began reading it. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley, from whom I received an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. You can get this book today.

Cenzo Vianello is a fisherman from the tiny village of Pellestrina, an ancient place steeped in tradition. He once had two brothers, but now has only one; Hugo died in Mussolini’s Africa campaign, and his remaining brother Giorgio is a movie star as well as an influential member of the Fascist government. Cenzo detests him for his politics, but even more for having stolen his wife Gina, who died when a bomb fell on the movie set to which Giorgio had escorted her.

All of this is background, complex and deliciously ambiguous in many aspects. It is within this context that Cenzo finds the girl, Giulia, floating like a corpse in the lagoon. To his surprise, he finds she is alive. She is Jewish, from a wealthy family and on the run. She figures that if the poet Byron could cross that lagoon, then so can she. Cenzo hates to spoil her dream, but he tells her this is a dangerous plan, and for many reasons. He develops a plan for her rescue, but later finds he is ambivalent about having turned her over to someone else. Is she safe? Does she remember him? Who can he trust, and who not?

One must, after all, be careful who one embraces.

“The trouble was the war. It should be over. Instead, the Americans were taking forever while Mussolini ruled a puppet state and the Germans, like decapitated ants, went on fighting.”

 When one fears defeat, one may become desperate; in some ways, the Fascists now have little to lose, and so their behavior becomes more extreme. There are partisans that oppose the Fascists, but it’s difficult to be sure who is sincere, and who is a double agent.

Part of the suspense inherent in successful spy novels is the feeling of looking over your shoulder, wary of everyone all the time. The relationship between Cenzo and Giorgio is particularly well developed and is intertwined with this aspect of the story; we never know whether one of them is going to kill the other, and when Giorgio says he will help Cenzo, we wonder whether he is helping lead him into a trap.

Although Giulia provides us with a premise and a scaffold for the story, not to mention a really beautiful book jacket, hers is not the character we see developed. The characters that are meaty and interesting are the brothers.

That being said, Smith should get credit for including an interesting female side character in Maria, the wife of the consul of Argentina, a woman with shadowy business and motive. Maria isn’t there to seduce anyone, not really; she’s also not a victim. In a field riddled with endemic sexism, I was happy to see this progressive element, and was fascinated by the brief, spectral appearance of her husband from his sickbed.

This story is a page-turner, an unmissable tale that will keep your light burning late and distract you from your daily pursuits until it’s over.  Don’t miss this one.

Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz, by Isabella Leitner****

fragmentsofisabellaIsabella Leitner was a Holocaust survivor, and she scribed her memoir using brief entries similar to a diary in format. The length is just 120 pages, about the size of a novella. I was asked to read and review this memoir free of charge before it was released digitally. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the invitation. This title was just released, so it is available now for purchase.

I confess I struggle with Holocaust memoirs these days. Part of me has decided not to read any more of them. I am out of the classroom, so my ability to educate young people of today about the horrors of the past is nearly at a standstill, apart from the knowledge I pass on to my grandchildren. Reading another Holocaust memoir isn’t going to make the ending any better; it’s always going to be horrifying, and heaven help me if I should become so accustomed to reading about the Holocaust that it doesn’t affect me that way anymore.

So though I swear off Holocaust memoirs from time to time (and am doing so right now, again), when a particular memoir is offered, frequently there is some aspect of this one that sets it apart from the crowd, and so it is with Isabella’s memories. Not many survivors managed to get out with family members at their side; Isabella and her sisters were unusually clever and imaginative in finding ways to survive. This along with the invitation induced me to roll up my sleeves and revisit this calamitous part of history once more.

When the notorious Mengele motioned with his deadly white glove to send Isabella and one of her sisters to the extermination side, they found a way to creep back around and intermingle with the side selected to be kept alive as workers. At one point they escaped and found an outstanding hiding place…but before they were identified as missing, the Germans began cooking potatoes, a luxury Isabella and her sisters could not resist, and they slunk out of their haystack and into the food line. There are a number of these instances, and I found the short chapters merciful, because I could only read this in small bits and pieces.

Most powerful of all, as far as I am concerned, is the clear, unmistakable truth that Germans knew, absolutely had to know, exactly what was going on around them. As their own lives improved materially, they chose to look the other way as skeletal work crews of Jewish and other prisoners were marched directly down the main streets of towns and villages on a daily basis:

“Germany was one giant concentration camp, with Jews marching the length and breadth of the country, but these refined, sensitive Germans never saw us. Find me a German who ever saw me. Find me one who ever harmed us.”

The memoir is of necessity harsh in its remembrance. The teaser for this story bills it as having been written for young adults, but the background material required to understand some of what is said requires a good deal of pre-teaching.  In other words, if a teacher or home-school supervisor has run out of social studies time and is looking for a shortcut to make up for teaching about the Holocaust, this isn’t it. Frankly, this reviewer and teacher wonders how a full unit regarding the Holocaust could be lower on the chain of important social studies curriculum than anything else, apart from possibly the Bill of Rights (for US students). But if one is determined to substitute one memoir for a longer unit that gives more information, use Elie Wiesel’s Night, which stands on its own.

Finally, any teacher or prospective reader needs to consider exactly how searing this material is, and all the more so to the young mind; to Jewish readers; to anyone with triggers.

I should also mention that a bisexual guard at Auschwitz, a woman that was interested sexually in one of the prisoners, is referred to as “aberrant”, not for being a guard at such a place, but for her sexual orientation.

Do I recommend this memoir to you? Those that are studying the Holocaust should read it; the fact that it’s written by a survivor makes it a primary document. But those that are looking for an engaging, enjoyable slice of history should look elsewhere. There are no light moments, no surprisingly kindly individuals that go out of their way to help. It’s a cold, hard story, and the only joy is provided up front when we learn that she gets out alive and not alone, as so many Holocaust survivors found themselves.

It’s a hard, hard lesson, but given that revisionists are diligently trying to deny that the Holocaust actually occurred, attempting to rake over the evidence as if it were not nearly as serious as we may believe, it also has a great deal of value.

Because Isabella was there.

Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly***-****

lilacgirlsLilac Girls is the story of three women during World War II. I received a DRC for this book courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for an honest review. I rate this novel 3.5 stars.

The story centers around Caroline Ferriday, an actress and New York socialite that volunteers at the Consulate organizing clothing and other essential items for French orphans; Kasia, a Polish teenager that is active in the resistance movement; and Herta Oberheuser, a doctor given one opportunity to practice medicine under the Nazi regime…at Ravensbruck. All of these are based on people that existed, though the story is a fictionalized account.

Kelly’s debut novel is strong in historical detail and setting. Here she describes Kasia’s home town in Poland:

 

Lublin rose beyond them in the distance, like a fairy-tale city, scattered with old

red-roofed pastel buildings as if a giant had shaken them in a cup and tossed

them on the rolling hills.

 

Whether it’s at Ravensbruck, which was a Nazi concentration camp, at an orphanage in France, or in a glittering nightclub, Kelly nails setting. I would like to see her rely less on crutches such as famous people of that time period that pop into the scene—this device signals a lack of confidence to me, and Kelly can get by without these props.

I also would have liked to see less brand name identification, which looks a lot like product placement. The whole advertising jingle for a particular brand of cookies, and a particular New York department store whose name may actually have appeared some thirty or forty times hindered the novel more than it helped; Kelly will do well to leave her advertising career behind when she sits down to write fiction. But this is her first  novel, and given what I see here, I think we can expect great things from her in the future; she is just getting warmed up.

In addition to crafting resonant settings, Kelly does the world a favor in telling about the experiments done on members of the Polish resistance, known as “the rabbits” because of the way they hop around rather than walking after their legs have been experimented on surgically, often done to them in ways that further medical knowledge in no way at all. Though it is critical to remember that what Hitler and the Nazi regime did to the Jews was real—and it’s more important than ever now that most World War II veterans have died and revisionists would like to rearrange the historical record and count the camps as an exaggeration of the facts—few know of the extent to which other groups were also sent away, often to die before the end of the war. The author makes an important contribution to historical literature by doing this.

That said, I have to confess that I am a little bit disappointed because I have wanted to read more about the resistance movement itself, and when I read the teaser for this story, I thought that one character’s life within the story would center on this aspect of the war. Instead, Kasia is arrested almost immediately, and once inside the camp, her story is in many ways like other Holocaust stories.  It’s horrific, and if you have not read any other stories set during the Holocaust, then you will certainly want to read it. I have read enough Holocaust stories, and this character never stops being fictional for me.  And the same is true for Caroline, who seems shallow and superficial despite her sacrifices and tireless effort.

The character that makes me sit up and take notice is Herta. I can’t recall having read a Holocaust story in which a Nazi speaks to us in the first person, and the gutsy depiction of this opportunistic woman mesmerizes me. The offhand remarks that Herta makes to rationalize her choices as she slides down that slippery slope ethically, letting her standards be eroded in order to further her career and increase her own standard of living, are chilling and immediate. I believe in this character. Kelly is deft in the way she depicts this ambitious but morally pliable, solipsistic individual. There are a hundred chances to make her into a caricature, but Kelly’s subtle finesse steps back every time this might occur, and the result will leave you breathless with horror.

Whether to invest the full jacket price of this novel depends on how deep your pockets are and whether you have read a lot of Holocaust literature. If you haven’t, you’ll want to add this title to your collection. And come what may, Kelly will be a writer to watch in the future.

 

The Nazi Hunters, by Andrew Nagorski*****

thenazihuntersI had promised myself not to read any more Holocaust memoirs. What is to be gained? But when I saw this title available as a review copy on Net Galley, I thought that there is actually something to cheer the spirit in recounting how some of these monsters were tracked down and brought to justice. To date this is the most comprehensive telling of that achievement that I have read. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and also to Net Galley for the DRC. This book is available for purchase May 17.

Were it not for the efforts of Jewish survivors and the state of Israel, very few of the top-ranking Nazi officers would ever have gone to trial. Following World War II, Allied forces divided small, relatively helpless nations of Europe like a pack of robbers piecing out the spoils after a bank job. Once that was done, there was little energy or funding put into hunting down Nazis. To be sure, there was no logistical way to try and punish everyone in Germany or its neighboring states that had belonged to the Nazi party or its offshoots. There were millions. Some of them joined because it was easier to join than to not join; some did it for job security; and a surprising number did it because they loved Hitler and the Third Reich. No matter how terribly they have behaved, you can’t jail millions of people that did the wrong thing, even when their participation and complicity have resulted in the deaths of innocent millions. And so an agreement was reached that just the top guys would be hunted down and tried in an international court.

By the time the war ended, however, the USA had begun the Cold War with Russia and its satellite states, incorporated at the time as the USSR. Congress was much more interested in funding ways to combat Stalin’s version of Communism than it was in locating war criminals. And this is where Israel became such an important player.

There are passages within this meaty tome that necessarily detail the kinds of horrors visited by one or another Nazi officer in order to illustrate the level of evil the individual in question represented. It is not good bedtime material. But there is far more of the courage, cleverness, and above all teamwork involved in finding these people, documenting their crimes, and bringing them to justice, and that’s what I wanted to see.

Philosophical questions that were examined when I was a kid in school are raised once more. At what point can a person no longer defend himself by saying he was just following orders? At what point does trying to follow the law of the land—even Fascist law—no longer let a person off the hook? Many of those that stood trial were people that had initiated one or another terrible innovation in the torture or murder of other human beings. Others went to trial for their monstrous brutality. Concentration camp survivors bore witness against them. I loved reading about those that had been stripped of everything, horribly tortured and humiliated right down to the nubs of their souls in a position of some power against their oppressors. It felt right.

Addressed here also is the tremendously controversial kidnapping of the butcher Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann lived in a Latin American nation that did not extradite war criminals; Israeli forces ferreted him out, forced him onto an airplane and took him to stand trial in Israel. Those that objected to this illegal behavior ultimately had little recourse. I felt like it was one of those times when a rule is rightfully broken. (See Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolph Eichmann, also reviewed on this blog.)

For researchers and students of history, as well as those with a strong interest in this area, this book is highly recommended.

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, by Oleg Khlevniuk*****

stalinAlthough this book is published by Yale, Klehvniuk is a research fellow at the Russian national archives, and has devoted twenty years of his life to studying Stalin, the ruler that held much of Eastern Europe in an iron grasp from 1929-1953, when he died. That must be a really dark place, but he’s done a brilliant job. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Yale University Press for allowing me a free peek. This book is available for purchase right now.

The author tells us that revisionists have undertaken to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation lately, and to attribute his various unspeakable crimes against humanity to those below him. What a thought! Many previously secret archives were opened in the early 1990s, and our researcher has been busy indeed.

He begins with a brief but well done recounting of Stalin’s childhood, which he says was grim, but not grimmer than that of most of his peers, and surely not sufficiently grim to account for the monster he would become later in life. Then he discusses the Russian Revolution, and the relationship and struggle among its leadership, most notably Lenin (of whom he has a less favorable view than my own), Trotsky, and Stalin. Lenin and Trotsky disagreed over a number of things, primarily the role of the peasantry in the new society and its government. Lenin pushed Stalin to a higher level of leadership for a brief while because he was not happy with Trotsky, who in any case was in charge of the military, a critical task all by itself at the time. However, when Lenin’s health began to fail and he realized he would have to select a successor, he turned to Trotsky. By then, unfortunately, Stalin had built himself a clique within the leadership. A struggle for control ensued. Stalin came out on top, and Trotsky was banished. In 1940, Stalin paid a henchman to go to Mexico City and kill him with an ice pick.

After Lenin’s death, government was largely by committee, and although ruthless decisions sometimes had to be made at a time when there were still Mensheviks (Social Democrats) who would turn the revolutionary achievement into a bourgeois state, no one person had the ultimate power over the lives of his comrades. Over the next few years, however, the German Revolution failed and scarce resources had to be allocated. Stalin consolidated his hold on authority and the precious resources that could not be distributed sufficiently to keep everyone under the Soviet umbrella warm and fed went first (and increasingly lavishly) to the corrupt bureaucratic caste that controlled the Soviet Union, foremost Stalin himself. After that came resources for the workers in Russian cities; and after that came everyone else. The peasantry, which had been in a state close to slavery under the Tsar, were still shut off from the benefits of the Revolution, and Stalin undertook to force them to produce food for the city while punishing and often executing those that tried to stockpile a small amount on which to sustain their own families.

Klehvniuk gives a good deal of space, and rightly so, to the Great Terror of 1937-1938, when Stalin began suspecting all sorts of people, those close to him, far away, sometimes in large groups, of conspiring against him. He had them rounded up and executed. There even came a point in his career when he was having family members rounded up and shot. Toward the end of his life it was hard to find a qualified physician to treat him, because Stalin had been having so many doctors arrested and shot.

Klehvniuk provides us with a surprisingly readable narrative. He tells the chronological story of Stalin’s rule, with the horrifying numbers of people, most of them innocent, that were slain for political and nonpolitical “crimes” during the quarter century of his rule, and he alternates it with a narrative of Stalin on his deathbed. (Because everyone was so afraid of the guy, when they found him on the floor, alive but in a humiliating position, they had to step out and take a meeting so that no one individual would bear that responsibility. Until then, he stayed on the floor right where he was.)

An intriguing question that will probably never be answered has to do with the very congested state of his arteries upon autopsy. How much of his behavior can be associated with physical causes, possibly including dementia? He was one mean old man when he died. It’s a haunting consideration.

This reviewer was already familiar with a lot of the basic facts of Russian history, and moreso with the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin, and Trotsky. Nevertheless I think that the interested lay reader, if not overly attached to remembering the names of all of the secondary players that came and went, ought to be able to make it through this work and find it as absorbing as I did. It’s dark material, and I read other things in between sessions in order to keep my own mood from sliding. That said, I don’t think you will find a more knowledgeable writer or a more approachable biography anywhere than this one.

Whether for your own academic purposes or simply out of interest and the joy in reading a strong biography, you really aren’t likely to find a better written biography of Stalin nor a more well informed author. It went on sale May 19, so you can get a copy now. Highly recommended!

Survival in the Shadows: Seven Jews Hidden In Hitler’s Berlin, by Barbara Lovenheim *****

survivalintheshadowsAt one point I promised myself, no more Holocaust memoirs! I can’t change history, and I know enough. I am retired. Why make myself feel worse? But then this wonderful biography became available, thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media; thank you to both of them for the free DRC. Not only was it worth delving back into this difficult period in history, but it kept me awake till 2 AM because I could not put it down unfinished. What a terrific story!
Many of those of us that have studied the Holocaust, whether for reasons of family and culture, historical interest, or something else, have maxed out on the horror, the numbers, the gut-wrenching details. This book isn’t more of that. Instead, it is the remarkable true story of Jewish Germans that found a way to conceal themselves, not only in Nazi-occupied Europe, but in Berlin itself. Within the belly of the beast, there were still some good people left. There were people that would house the Arndt family members; there were those who had no space or were too afraid to do that, but who would provide food; and there were those who took no active role, but were willing to see, and to say nothing. And perhaps more than anything, there were seven really smart people who were determined not to die, and who beat the odds by surviving till the Russians came in to rescue them.
Young people are often the quickest to respond appropriately when big changes occur quickly, and so it was with the Arndts. Dr. Arndt had grown up in Germany as a member of a respected family, and he was reluctant to give up on the German government as a source of justice and order. He had fought in World War I, and didn’t think his country would allow him or his loved ones to be hurt. Erich, his son, thought differently. Ultimately, it was the teenagers, Erich and Ruth, who persuaded their parents that they had to disappear. In fact, they tossed down an ultimatum: disappear, or we will disappear without you! To keep the family together, the doctor and his wife, Lina, complied with their children’s wishes, and it is a very good thing they did so.
Once Goebbels, the monstrous architect of Nazi Germany’s “final solution” to its Jewish scapegoats, declared Berlin to be completely free of Jews, a lot of Germans believed him. For most of them, it was not really an important issue; they were more concerned with paying their bills and finding food than with spying on the neighbors. The truth was that more than 5,000 Jews had slipped by the cops, soldiers, and members of the SS; of those, 1,600 managed to hide somewhere until the whole thing was over. However, this was the only family to emerge intact—not that no one in their family died, but that seven of them managed to ease themselves in and out of safe houses, factories, even basements and sheds, with the help of the doctor’s former patients and others who were willing to do the right thing.
It’s enough to give us faith in humanity, because there was a good deal of both real and perceived risk in doing so.
Wouldn’t you like to read some good news for a change? Lovenheim’s survival tale is fantastic. I was spellbound both by the bold, clever things done by the family members—especially the young folks—and by the inspirational actions and words of those that could not look away, who just had to help in spite of what could happen to them if they were caught.
Highly recommended, and recently released, this one is a real day-brightener. Get it right away. You’ll feel so much better if you do!

At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen *****

bythewatersedgeBy the author of Water for Elephants comes a gripping tale of cowardice,deception, love, and heroism. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. It was a quick read and a great deal of fun.

The setting: World War II, primarily on a remote Scottish island. The story: three spoiled, wealthy, entitled brats misbehave publicly and are sent away by their chagrined parents. Since their allowance has been cut and they have to get gone anyway, they decide it might be just the thing to track down the Loch Ness Monster; not only will it be heaps of fun, but Father will be so pleased. He always wanted proof it existed! And what war? When one is wealthy enough, one cannot possibly be in danger! Just haul out the cash and start bribing others. Nothing to it, really!

Now we’re cooking. We’re on a remote Scottish island after endless seasickness aboard a ship that is constantly fired upon by u-boats. We have a crumbling castle; a Scottish warrior; a fainting damsel; a fiendish conspiracy; several working class heroes of both genders; a love story; and of course, there’s the loch! Get your gum boots ready; it’s soggy out there. Toss in a dash of magical realism, and we’re all set.

Gruen does a wonderful job developing Maddie Hyde, our protagonist, who receives more than one wake-up call whilst she is marooned on this island in the middle of a war that is now real and present. The treatment of husband Ellis and pal Hank is perfect; the writer is subtle, but not so subtle that we miss what’s happening. Angus is such a magnificent character that I found myself wondering what actor ought to play him when the movie comes out.

So I absolutely forbid you to regard this book as Water for Sea Monsters! No, no, no.

Gruen’s wonderful nugget will be released at the end of March 2015, just in time for spring break. If you’re going to be somewhere warm, it’s the perfect beach read. If you’ll be at home or in a cozy cabin watching the rain pound down, it’s the perfect curl-up-by-the-fire book.

Your reviewer isn’t usually fond of love stories, but for Sara Gruen, an exception will always be made. A must-read!